Free schools could be allowed to join the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association (SFCA) after its governing council voted in favour of an admission rules change.
The SFCA has campaigned against the establishment of 16 to 19-year-old free schools, which are types of academies, where there is already sufficient sixth form provision and where members could be affected.
A report by London Economics showed that sixth form colleges were forced to spend 35 per cent less on their learners than academies. The research, released in June, found that on average, academies were able to spend an average of £1,598 more per student than sixth from colleges, due to increased government funding and subsidies.
However, the SFCA will now allow free schools to join its ranks and is already in discussions with Salisbury Sixth Form College (a 16 to 19 free school) about its formal application to become a full member, adopting SFCA pay, terms and conditions before opening in September.
James Kewin, SFCA deputy chief executive, told FE Week: “I suppose what prompted it was is the fact that sixth form free school colleges exist, they are a reality whether we like it or not.
“We were approached by a couple of free school sixth form colleges asking if they could join, and that triggered a debate within our council and the sector at large about whether we should admit them.
“In some quarters there was some disquiet, given the fact some sixth form colleges are competing with these providers on an uneven playing field, but we put it out to our regions and took it to a vote, and there was a very clear majority view that under certain circumstances they should be admitted.
“For those which are in an area with no competition issues, or where the existing colleges have no objection, we thought it best to take a pragmatic case-by-case approach.”
But he said SFCA’s wider campaign calling for funding equality would remain.
“What this doesn’t do is change things at a national level,” said Mr Kewin. “We are still going to campaign against the unfairness, but once they are approved, there’s nothing we can do.
“What was interesting is that the colleges which are nearer to free schools are the ones which are most keen on collaboration, and from our point of view, if we are serious about expanding the sector and increasing the number of sixth form colleges, which there is a need for, in practice, this is the only way of doing it.”
No one from Salisbury Sixth Form College was available for comment.